This spring, I supervised three students from the California College of Arts (CCA) who were taking a course called Biological Design. This new course aims to give artists insight into biological structures and evolutionary principles, to provide biologists with new ways of looking at their data, and to "explore the synergies between biology, design and art" according to the course curriculum. Scientists at Stanford (including myself) were matched with CCA students from a variety of disciplines and we spent three months talking about scientific principles, sharing data and creating art pieces.
One issue I discussed with my students was vaccination, and how it can be challenging for people to decide if vaccination is the right thing for them. If you haven’t suffered from flu for the last few years, why should you race to CVS in September and roll up your sleeve for your shot?
I made the video below based on my students’ art, their interpretations of immune responses, and my own reactions to their questions and art pieces. I hope you like it!
The CCA Biological Design course ran as a pilot to explore the possibilities for artists and scientists to work together and is a great first step toward real, two-way collaboration. In working with the students, I was able to appreciate new ways of looking at information. In these days of big data, the ability to display large quantities of data in meaningful ways is becoming increasingly important. Students explored different graphical methods of displaying immunological responses and even used music processing software to generate audio representations of real data. Perhaps scientists will not immediately jump at the thought of listening to the results of experiments rather than looking at graphs, but it is important to keep an open mind when considering how to display and interpret large data sets.
The course ended with a review, during which all the students showed and discussed their work and were given feedback from CCA faculty as well as Stanford scientists. Despite initial reservations following an email from the course coordinator warning of potential nudity and advising one student to “please keep urine off spectators”, I was hugely impressed by all the students involved. With pieces ranging from living jewellery to tattooed bananas and, yes, bottles of urine (thankfully only pictures were shown), students had manipulated various biological systems to develop extraordinary videos, images, music and tangible art pieces.
The course coordinators are planning to run the course again this coming autumn. It would be great to give the students more hands-on experience in a laboratory, allowing them to generate their own data and giving them real insight into how scientists address biological questions. If the students could be paired with scientists who have already designed the first few experiments, the collaborative aspect of the course could really come to the fore. I was really struck by the students’ ability to assimilate information and their capacity to compress multi-dimensional data sets into something visually interpretable. As a proponent of interdisciplinary collaboration, I’m excited to see the directions this course will take and the art pieces and data visualisations that could come from future collaborations.